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The King Must Die

by Mary Renault

Part of the Virago Modern Classics Series

Historical fiction

LoveReading Expert Review of The King Must Die

I don’t say masterpiece often, but I think this book is.

Mary Renault is deeply loved by many, though is today not nearly as widely read as she deserves to be. Just as Rosemary Sutcliff gave me Roman Britain, so did Renault guide me — and so many others — to Classical Greece. As with many (though not all) great novelists, readers can legitimately debate which is her best book. Reading is a dialogue, after all, not a monologue: we bring our own taste, personality, our age and times, the state of our life when we pick up a book … and that has much to do with whether we hate, like, love a novel. I’m going to name what I do think is Renault’s best. 

The King Must Die is the first of two novels about the mythic figure of Theseus (it can absolutely be read alone), taking him from childhood to the island of Crete and an unforgettable imagining of what Minoan Crete (before 1500 BCE!) might have been like at the height of that culture, including the celebrated bull-dancers. We can’t know, but Renault’s magnificent act of creation lets us imagine it with her, and be wrapped in wonder. It is a beautifully-told story, written in a way that opens a reader up to the idea of the strangeness of the past (more on this later) — while offering characters that are both mythic and profoundly immediate and intense. I don’t say masterpiece often, but I think this book is.

Selected by our Spring 2021 Guest Editor, Guy Gavriel Kay


The King Must Die Synopsis

Theseus is the grandson of the King of Troizen, but his paternity is shrouded in mystery - can he really be the son of the god Poseidon? When he discovers his father's sword beneath a rock, his mother must reveal his true identity: Theseus is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and is his only heir. So begins Theseus's perilous journey to his father's palace to claim his birthright, escaping bandits and ritual king sacrifice in Eleusis, to slaying the Minotaur in Crete. Renault reimagines the Theseus myth, creating an original, exciting story.

About This Edition

ISBN: 9781844089635
Publication date: 5th March 2015
Author: Mary Renault
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group
Format: Paperback
Pagination: 416 pages
Collections: 20+ Terrific Books Featuring Greek Myths ,
Primary Genre Historical fiction
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What To Read After The King Must Die

The Seeker
City of Shadows
Time's Convert
The Pirate's Daughter

Mary Renault Press Reviews

There's much to say about her interweaving of myth and history and, just as interestingly, there's much to wonder at in the way she fills in the large dark spaces where we know next to nothing about the times she describes . . . an important and wonderful writer . . . she set a course into serious-minded, psychologically intense historical fiction that today seems more important than ever -- Sam Jordison - Guardian

Renault did for Ancient Greece what Hilary Mantel did for the Tudors -- Quentin Letts - The Week

Other editions of this book

ISBN: 9781844089635
Publication date: 05/03/2015
Format: Paperback

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About Mary Renault

Mary Renault was educated at Clifton High School, Bristol and St Hugh's College, Oxford. Having completed nursing training in 1937, she then wrote her first novel Promise of Love. Her next three novels were written during off-time duty whilst serving in the war. In 1948 she went to live in South Africa but travelled widely. It was her trip to Greece and her visits to Corinth, Samos, Crete, Delos, Aegina and other islands, as well as to Athens, Sounion and Marathon, that resulted in her brilliant historical reconstructions of Ancient Greece. Mary Renault died in 1983.

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